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A Long Weekend Cruising on the Grand Union Canal

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Holidaying at home is more popular than ever and there’s perhaps a no better way to get a new perspective on the countryside around you, than from the water. Britain is lucky to have thousands of miles of waterways, many of which are navigable by boat. One of the most popular waterways in the whole of the UK is the Grand Union Canal.

Grand Union canal on a summer evening sunset
Stephen Butler / Shutterstock

Grand Union Canal traverses picturesque villages, major cities, and beautiful scenery. What better way to spend a long weekend, than cruising some of this historic canal?

History of the Grand Union Canal

Where is The Grand Union Canal?

Grand Union canal in Milton Keynes
Pajor Pawel / Shutterstock

The main line of the Grand Union Canal runs from Birmingham to London, crossing many other towns and villages along the way.

The primary route stretches 137 miles in total, not including its arms. The arms of the canal peel off the main route, to provide access to Leicester, Aylesbury, Wendover, Slough, and Northampton.

Cruising the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to London would involve navigating no less than 166 separate locks. In order to navigate the whole system, from Proof House Junction to London Zoo would take around 76 hours. With that in mind, your long weekend plan should maybe focus on a smaller section of the canal!

Why Was The Grand Union Canal Built?

Grand Union and Kings Norton Sign

The Grand Union Canal is the longest merged canal in the UK. Including its arms, it encompasses almost 300 miles of waterway. In 1894 the Grand Union Canal was but a dream. Britain’s waterways were a popular way of transporting goods from town to town.

So, a canal that connected the capital city to the midlands would enable a faster transport route. while it is possible to navigate along a river, canals are distinctly different as they are entirely manmade. This means that generally there is no current in the water, allowing for smooth sailing – and thus, easier transportation.

A plan was hatched to connect several different canals, it would take the next 35 years. The Grand Union Canal came into being in 1929 and since then has remained largely unchanged. Perhaps the biggest change to the canal is its use.

Originally used as a freight route, the canal suffered a huge loss of traffic at the invention of the railway. It took a long time for the canal to fall back into favor again, but since the regenerated interest in hobby boating, it is once again as busy as it was in its heyday.

Where to Hire a Narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal

Canal Port

What Do You Want From A Boating Holiday?

Before diving in and hiring a boat for your holiday, you’ll need to first think about what sort of holiday experience you’re after.

If you’d like to steer easily, don’t need all of the modern conveniences of a conventional home, and don’t have an enormous budget, then a river cruiser might provide a speedy and economical option for you and fulfill your UK bucket list.

If on the other hand, you’d like a full-sized oven, perhaps a wood-burning stove, and a certain degree of maneuverability, but you’re willing to sacrifice on speed, then a narrowboat/canal boat might be your best option.

Finally, if you really want all of the conveniences of a hotel room, absolutely must have a ship’s wheel, and want plenty of space to spread out then a Dutch barge should be what you seek out.

Barge Hire Grand Union Canal

Colourful narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal
Clive117 / Shutterstock

Whether you’re after a cruiser, a narrowboat, or a barge, there are plenty of companies along the Grand Union Canal that can provide you with the perfect holiday boat. One of the most popular spots for Grand Union Canal boat hire is Linslade.

Linslade is just outside the beautiful town of Leighton Buzzard. It is conveniently situated almost exactly in the middle of the canal route. The Wyvern Shipping Co, operating from Linslade, has been running a canal boat hire company for more than 50 years. All this experience means they are a reputable and knowledgeable place to hire a boat from.

For those starting towards the north of the canal, Clifton Cruisers run a very similar hire business. You can find them in Clifton upon Dunsmore. Clifton boats boast modern fit-outs and they give a thorough introduction to new boaters.

Once you’ve booked your boat, all that’s left is to pack exactly as you would for any other holiday. Some people like to do a quick food shop for the weekend, as there’ll be kitchen facilities onboard.

However, there are plenty of pubs and restaurants to visit along the journey, so the choice is yours.

See Related: Best Places to Visit in the United Kingdom

Planning Your Route Along the Grand Union Canal

The most exciting part of your planning should be working out your route. This will vary hugely depending on where you start, but a sensible place to begin is with a detailed map of the Grand Union Canal. The one below provides some spots that might be of interest.

Marked on are boat hire companies, places to eat, and sights to see.

Map showing points of interest on Grand Union Canal
Use this map as a starting point to plan your weekend adventure.

When planning your route it is important to bear in mind that a narrowboat doesn’t travel very quickly. Plan to cover about four miles an hour, leaving 15 minutes for each of the Grand Union canal locks.

Before planning a mammoth route, remember that you’ll need to take your boat back to the marina that you hired it from which doubles your journey time!

A great tool for planning your route is the Canal Plan website. This site allows you to choose a start and end point and gives you an estimate of how long your journey might take you.

If you’d like to include sites of interest, or pubs that are by the waterway, then you can simply check a box and the canal planner will do all of the hard work for you.

See Related: How to Plan a Month-Long Vacation

Grand Union Canal London

Rows of houseboats and narrow boats on the Grand Union Canal in London
BasPhoto / Shutterstock

Those who choose to start off to the South of the canal can easily find a London Grand Union Canal map online. If you’re less of a forward planner then your boat hire company will very likely leave some maps and information onboard.

The Grand Union canal London has many short trips which are easily completed in a weekend. These short trips will allow you to fully experience inner-city boating. You can boat right through Camden, visit London Zoo from the water, and stop off for lunch in Little Venice.

With hotel prices in London getting higher and higher, having your own floating room could even be a money-saving way to see the capital. Of course, the other benefit of a boat is that you can travel as you, please.

So, if you feel like mixing the city with the countryside then Watford is a popular location just outside of London. The Canal and River Trust, which takes care of Britain’s waterways, offers a Grand Union canal Watford map, which also includes walking routes that are well worth visiting.

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Grand Union Canal Outside Of London

Grand Union Canal in Market Harborough

Of course, London isn’t the only major city on the canal. Those who fancy visiting a city with more canals than Venice should get hold of a Grand Union canal Birmingham map. If you’re hiring locally then one will be available from your boat hire marina.

Birmingham and its outskirts also have plenty of weekend-friendly trips, which will be of particular interest to those who enjoy industrial architecture.

Another pleasant, and slightly less busy, section of the canal to visit is the Grand Union Canal Aylesbury arm. This section breaks away from the main canal just past Brentford. It comprises 4 miles of picturesque scenery, ending in Aylesbury.

Although 4 miles won’t take long to navigate, there are 16 locks along this stretch of waterway. With each lock taking at least 15 minutes, this adds another 4 hours of journey time.

This means that in five hours or so you could complete one leg of your journey, an achievable, but not daunting amount for a beginner’s first adventure.

See Related: 25 Interesting Facts About London

Facilities On The Grand Union Canal

If you’re only hiring for a weekend, then your boat should come prepared with everything you need. However, if you’re planning on a longer adventure then you may need to factor in a visit to one of the marinas on the Grand Union Canal.

Your boat will come with a full water tank, which will usually last for a week or two. If you find that you need to fill up, you can call into a marina, or find yourself a water point to moor up by on the canal.

while filling up the water is totally straightforward and not at all unpleasant, there is one element of boating that is a little less idyllic. All canal boats carry around the waste from the toilet with them.

Most hire boats will come with a large tank that you won’t have to empty, but if you hire a boat with a cassette toilet for an extended period of time, then you’ll need to familiarize yourself with Elsan points.

These points are dotted along the side of the canal. Elsan points enable you to empty your toilet cassette, keeping things smelling nice and fresh onboard.

See Related: Best Vacation Ideas for a Group of Friends

Navigating Along The Grand Union Canal

sunset cruise at Grand Union canal
Pajor Pawel / Shutterstock

If you’re hiring from one of the boat hire marinas on the Grand Union Canal then you’ll be given a full introduction to how your boat works. However, if you’re borrowing from a friend, or renting privately, then it might help to have a little understanding first.

The most important thing to remember is to take everything nice and slowly. You’re unlikely to come to any harm at all in a barge or narrowboat, they’re made of very thick steel. However, if you hit a fiberglass boat, you could do some serious damage. Slow maneuvers keep everyone safe.

Another tip to remember is that your steering works back to front. If you’d like the front of your boat to turn left, then steer the tiller to the right, and vice versa. Most boats have little to no steering in reverse. So, get yourself lined up facing the right way before attempting any backward movement.

Man Navigating a Canal in Winter
Whether bright summer sunshine or cold winter weather, there’s nowhere more relaxing than the tiller of a narrowboat.

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Narrowboating Etiquette

Finally, a note on boating etiquette. When cruising you should always keep your boat to the right-hand side of the canal. If you need to turn around then it’s best to find yourself a winding hole.

Winding holes on the Grand Union canal come fairly frequently, as the canal is almost always too narrow to safely turn a boat around in. Once you get to a winding hole, make sure that the canal is clear both ways before turning around.

Sometimes other boaters will invite you to share a lock with them. If it’s a wide lock and you’re both on narrowboats then you should have no problems, but only take them up on their offer if you’re confident at steering. If you are going to be passing boats that are moored up then be sure to pull the throttle right back to ‘tick-over’ or barely moving.

The wake caused by a boat traveling quickly is at best enough to spill a moored boaters cup of tea, and at worst enough to start a proper argument.

See Related: Guide to Hiking the Heart of Wales Line

Understanding The Grand Union Canal Locks

As mentioned before, there are plenty of locks along this canal. Locks enable boats to safely travel up and downhill. As we know, water always flows downhill. So, locks work like enormous gates, preventing the canal from flowing the way it usually would.

How Exactly Do Locks Work?

Canal Locks on the Grand Union Canal

If you want to travel uphill in a lock, you first open the bottom paddles. Then move your boat into the lock, close the bottom paddles and tie your boat safely. Next, you should open the top paddles slowly, allowing the water to fill the lock. Once the water is level upstream, you can open the top paddles, move your boat to the lock landing and carry on cruising!

The same exact principle applies when going downhill. Just take everything nice and slow and you’ll have the hang of it in no time. Your hire company will explain locks to you and if you forget there’s usually an instructional board nearby or even a lock keeper who will help out.

Those who just can’t get enough lock action could choose to undertake the Hanwell Flight Grand Union canal.

This series of seven locks is right to the west of London and originally connected London to the rest of the canal. The Hanwell Flight helps boats to climb a surprisingly steep hill and as such makes for a great photo opportunity.

A final note on locks. It’s incredibly important to remember to close all of the paddles once you’ve finished using them. Paddles left open are at best an inconvenience to other boaters but can cause much more serious problems.

If both sets of lock gates are left open then it has caused Grand Union canal flooding. This is because all of the water from upstream is left to flow downstream unchecked. All of these extra waters end up filling up a canal system that is already full.

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Activities Outside the Boat

Walking And Cycling The Towpath

Water birds at the Grand Union Canal and Towpath
Jono Photography / Shutterstock

Of course, for most people just being out and about on a boat is a holiday in itself. However, just in case you want to venture out, there’s plenty to do outside too. If you fancy a Grand Union canal walk then once again the Canal and River Trust has got you covered.

Their website has plenty of detailed maps of towpath walks, as well as routes that take you further afield. Similarly, there are some great Grand Union canal cycle routes for those who like seeing the countryside a little bit quicker.

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Zander Fishing Grand Union Canal

Newly catch fish
wwwarjag / Shutterstock

If you’d like to experience the great outdoors but aren’t quite ready to leave your boat, then fishing might be the perfect activity for you. Zander fishing on the Grand Union canal is the perfect way to while away an afternoon.

Why zander? This fish is an invasive species that was introduced to our waterways back in the 1970s. Since then zander has thrived in the murky waters of busy waterways, thanks to their eyes which are perfectly adapted to poor visibility. The zander is a voracious predator and has killed off stocks of native fish such as roach and gudgeon.

while there’s still a good chance you’ll catch a fish other than zander, it’s important to remember that if you do catch a zander, you shouldn’t return it to the water. DEFRA has made clear that zander are a non-native invasive species, so can’t be returned to the waterways.

The good news is that zander is popular across Europe for its white flakey flesh. So, if you fancy getting creative in your galley kitchen, then you might even catch yourself some supper.

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